Myanmar had been on our radar as a place to visit for a long time. We had wanted to go during our first RTW trip but it wasn’t particularly easy back then. Marred by longstanding repressive military governments, the country was effectively closed off to the world for many years. So much has changed in this country over the past decade. Not only are its borders open to visitors but the tourist industry is growing fast and is well established in some areas already. While there are still areas of Myanmar that are off limits, mainly border towns, much of the country is accessible to tourists. While travel was generally quite easy, it can be a lengthy process. Buses were very comfortable, but there is no such thing as a short bus ride. We heard traveling by train or boat was an interesting experience, but considering they are even slower than buses, we opted to avoid them. Inexpensive domestic flights were available to most tourist destinations so we did a combination of flying and long distance bus rides. I think that we have now attained full membership in the “softie travellers club”.
Myanmar is home to numerous and diverse ethnic groups, each with their own traditions, dress, food, and language. Historically this explains its complex past and ongoing political conflicts. The British occupation also left its mark and plays much into the recent issues in Rahkine State and the Rohinga people. Workers from nearby Bangladesh and India were brought over by the British as labourers. After independence, and the British departure, Myanmar was left as a country with so many ethnic groups all vying for recognition and power.
Instead of describing each place we visited, I will let the photos speak for themselves. I will try to highlight some of our insights and more notable experiences. Firstly, the people. Through all our travels thus far, we can honestly say that we have encountered friendly and gracious people in every country we have visited. But the Burmese may very well have been the most friendly of all. They were quick to smile and curious without being intrusive. Not once did we feel pressured or harassed to buy anything or quoted an inflated price. Some of the best hospitality we had was in Myanmar. Even the simplest guesthouses had impeccable service. Perhaps this is because tourism is still relatively new to the country, compared to their other Asian neighbours. Places like Thailand and Bali certainly boast very welcoming people, but I can’t help but notice that some are slightly jaded. And who can blame them when some places are so overrun with Western tourists.
The predominant religion in Myanmar is Buddhism. As such, the whole country is studded with stupas and temples. Many of these stupas are built on mountain tops. The majority are either whitewashed or gold coloured. The most famous area though is the plains of Bagan. In its prime during the 11th-13th centuries, there were over 10 000 temples! Currently there are about 3000 left, and the area is still so impressive and magical. We spent several days touring Bagan on E-bikes (small scooters) and thoroughly loved it. We especially loved the backroads and less visited temples where many times there wasn’t another soul around. Sunrise and sunsets were of course a popular and stunning experience.
As Buddhism is such an integral way of life for the Burmese people, monks and monkhood are very revered. Each male must serve twice as a monk in his life time, once as a child, and once as an adult. The service as a child usually last 1 or 2 weeks, while the service as an adult can last several months. For the girls, it is not mandatory but they also have a choice to spend parts of their lives as “pink” monks. Some parents choose to put their children into the monasteries as this is a means of securing an education for their children who otherwise would not have a chance to go to school. While many monks are pure in their practice of the Buddhist way of life, we did see some aberrations … some smoked, drank coffee, had tatoos, and carried cell phones. One even tried to sell us a monk's robe for $10!
A very noticeable trait of the Myanmar people is that almost all the women and some men and children use Thanahka. This is a yellow paste derived from the Thanakha tree in which the bark is ground into a fine powder. The powder is mixed with water and applied as a paste to the face, sometimes in different patterns. This is used for aesthetic reasons as well as for sun protection.
While still a relatively young struggling democracy and life continues to be very hard for many, we were told by some locals that life is getting easier. Some changes have been very recent. One village we visited only got electricity 3 years ago. We were also told that many schools have opened up in small villages enabling most children to attend school, at least at the primary level.
Myanmar is a fascinating country. We were certainly awed by its beautiful temples and stupas, and its natural beauty. More importantly, we were very touched by its warm and humble people.